The bar exam can be one of the most expensive undertakings in your early legal career, second only to law school itself. Some students are fortunate enough to have their firms pay for the entire experience—from the prep course to the exam and moral character fees, and even the food and lodging at the actual exam. “Public interest” students and students without jobs usually have to front the entire cost of the bar exam themselves.
The disparity between students destined for big law and everyone else can be so staggering that I’ve heard of students just crashing on the couch in their big law friends’ free hotel rooms. Unfortunately, this “public interest” student had never considered crashing at a friend’s place. All I knew was that I was taking the exam in Santa Clara and would rather live out of a truck than pay for a hotel in Silicon Valley. But through thorough advanced planning and a lot of luck, it turned out that I could make taking the bar exam feel like a vacation without going broke in the process.
When I initially looked up where to stay, I only considered hotels. The hotels were spread throughout the surrounding area—most of them would require a car to reach. Even the cheapest hotels were well over $100 per night, and those places had several hits on the bed bug registry. The bar exam website recommended hotels with which it had negotiated “deals,” but it looked like these “deals” were just a way to take advantage of the big law examinees who weren’t spending their own money. The “deals” were all several hundred dollars a night. I finally stumbled on a one room Airbnb in Sunnyvale for $50 per night. There were only a couple of pictures of the place, and it looked dark, but I figured that it was better than shelling out well over $500 for lodging.
When I arrived on the day before the bar exam, the Airbnb room turned out to be perfect: the apartment was brand new, there was a pool, a business center, everything. It was better than a hotel for my purposes, and there were no stressed out bar examinees in sight. The first thing I noticed was that it shared a parking lot with a grocery store, which turned out be open twenty-four hours a day and specialize in selling prepared meals to busy Silicon Valley workers. There was also a Peet’s Coffee.
After dropping off my bags, I went straight to the grocery store. For breakfast, I bought a bag of bagels, a container of cream cheese, and a package of lox, which ended up lasting my entire stay. If I was going to be suffering for three days, I might as well eat like a king. For lunch, I picked up a prepared meal that wouldn’t spoil while it sat in my backpack in the hallway outside the exam room. Bringing prepared food was key because the lines at a couple of lunch spots near the testing center were so long that just looking at them was stressful. Plus, these lunches were only $4 or $5 each.
That first evening, I went to a South Indian restaurant not too far from my Air BnB and told them to make my food as spicy as they could. This turned out to be my one mistake during the bar exam, and I paid dearly for it the next morning. After dinner, I spent the rest of the evening before the exam watching shows on Netflix.
Every morning, I would leisurely wake up at 5:00 a.m., stroll energetically into the Peet’s across the parking lot, and meet the weary eyed employees who had just opened the store at that unreasonable hour. I think this gave me a real edge on the competition. At the time, I was living in Washington, DC, so getting up at 5:00 a.m. Pacific time was as easy as an 8:00 a.m. wake-up on the East Coast. Rather than adjust to the time difference and lose my edge, I went to sleep every night by 8:00 p.m. and stayed on Eastern time for the entire exam. After grabbing my morning coffee, I would take it back to the Airbnb and review my outlines as I enjoyed my favorite lox and bagel breakfast. After breakfast, I would hop in an Uber (about $7 each way) and saunter into the testing center early.
It’s hard to measure how much my leisurely stay in Sunnyvale contributed to my passing score on the exam, but I certainly still have fond memories of the perfect California weather, the lox and bagel breakfasts, and my relaxing apartment. Looking back on it, the bar exam seems like a minor part of an overall fun vacation, which is probably a lot more than most examinees would say about the experience.
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